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The Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, Parent of all U.S. Canals

Sep 04, 2015 10:41AM ● By Cate Reynolds

Chesapeake City is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ nerve center for monitoring all marine traffic on the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. The city/bridge is also one of several crossing points for vehicle traffic.

By Cliff Rhys James

What is it about men, women, and their maps? Maps of highways, waterways, and airways; railroad maps, political maps, historical maps, topographical maps, military maps…maps, maps, maps; surely I can’t be too wide off the mark when I say that many if not most folks are attracted to maps—some a little, some a lot.

We study them to gain context and maintain perspective. And if that’s not entirely true at least it sounds good. Vast distances across the spanning continents and endless rolling seas appear conquerable when first viewed on a map. It’s all about spatial orientation and that region of the brain known as the hippocampus. After-all, we are instinctive explorers, born with adventurous souls in need of knowing what lies beyond the mouth of the river, across the vast wilderness, or on the dark side of the moon. And if that’s not entirely true at least it sounds good.

Maps reveal things that you might not otherwise consider. For instance, I’m willing to bet that more than a few readers believe the Delmarva Peninsula is, as its name suggests, a peninsula. But it’s not, according to my personal and somewhat skewed definition. It’s an island—a manmade island to be sure, but an island nonetheless. I live in Easton and if I head east, I’ll encounter the great unending surge of the Atlantic. The same holds true if I travel down to the southern tip of Northampton County Virginia. If I wander too far west I’ll plunge into the Chesapeake Bay. And when I turn north, I’m confronted yet again by, you got it—water. Water, water everywhere, in every direction—north, east, south, and west.
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge leaves the eastern entrance to the canal on the Delaware River at Reedy Point, Delaware.
But unlike those other celebrated bodies of water, this one fifty five miles or so north is less than two centuries—not eons—old. And unlike those natural wonders, this one was fashioned by human energy and material resources. It’s a linear waterway running roughly parallel to the Mason Dixon Line through Delaware and Maryland connecting two great east coast estuaries. And if you want to travel further north still beyond this aquatic divide you’ll need a bridge, a boat, or an airplane. I’m not a geographer, but our peninsula sounds much more like an island.

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

In 1661, a Dutch surveyor and map maker named Augustine Herman dreamed of a canal connecting “two great bodies of water separated only by narrow strip of land.” But a century would pass before surveys of possible water routes across the Delaware/Maryland Peninsula were completed. Then, in 1788, some heavyweights including the famous “Benjamin Boys of Philadelphia”—Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush—teed the matter up for serious discussion. After several false starts over several more decades, a company was formed, funds were raised, and 2,600 men went at it hard with picks, shovels, barrels, and ropes. At a cost of $2.5 million, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal opened for business in 1829; it was 14 miles long, 10 feet deep and 66 feet wide at the waterline with a 36-foot width at the base of the channel. It also operated four locks. It was one of the most expensive canal projects of the time and would later be known as the “Parent of all U.S. Canals.”

In the 1850s, two massive steam engines powering a 39’-diameter wheel (the only large scale water elevating water wheel built in the U.S.) were installed at Chesapeake City to continuously feed water into the canal’s upper levels replacing the prodigious quantities lost from lock operations, leakage through the canal banks, and evaporation. These are among the earliest steam engines still on original foundations left in the nation and are part of a designated Historic National Landmark. After a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential commission reported back its recommendation, the Federal Government purchased the canal in 1919 for $2.5 million, whereupon operating and maintenance responsibility was assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Then, in 1927, upon completion of another $10 million in improvements, including elimination of the locks, the “New Canal” was converted to a sea level operation with a 12-foot depth and 90-foot width at the waterline. Its eastern terminus was also relocated two miles south to Reedy Point.

Today, the C&D Canal is one of only two commercially vital “lockless” sea level canals in the country and the only one originally built in the early 1800s still in use. It has become a modern state of the art, electronically aided, fiber optic and micro-wave linked waterway 14 miles long, 450 feet wide (at the base of the channel) and 35 feet deep able to accommodate enormous ocean going vessels often exceeding 750 feet in length. At more than 15,000 transits estimated per year (commercial and military transits are “hard numbers” but private/pleasure craft transits are informed estimates) it is also one of the busiest water passages in the nation and world. To the surprise of many, it carries 40 percent of all commercial maritime freight traffic into and out of the port of Baltimore. (Many wrongly think that ships entering and leaving Baltimore Harbor do so only via the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.) To the surprise of no one, it saves 300 miles and a day’s ocean travel for commercial ships between the Philadelphia and Baltimore ports, which, in turn, saves an estimated 40 million gallons of fuel oil annually. Said differently, the economic impact of the C&D canal as a national asset far exceeds its prominence in the public’s mind.
Top: The Old Lock Pump House of the C&D Canal at Chesapeake City is now part of the canal museum grounds—a National Historic Landmark—maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Bottom: Two styles of bridges that parallel one another at the St. Georges crossing of the canal, near the eastern entrance.
Twelve year veteran of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Joe Pintal is a self-confessed “Lock and Dam Guy” and he looks the part as he strides about the Chesapeake City, Maryland office for the Philadelphia District of the USACE. The USACE, which is the largest construction operation in the world, has a proud history linked directly back to a gentleman from Virginia named George Washington. From South Dakota to South Korea and from the Great Lakes of North America to the great deserts of Iraq, the Corps’ military and civilian specialists make enormous contributions to our nation’s economic vitality and security. Joe and his team of approximately 25 full-time civilian employees are charged with the 24/7 operation and maintenance of not only the canal itself but of six busy highway bridges that span it, access roads that parallel it, and a host of other facilities and systems which support it. They also handle upkeep and maintenance of the nearby C&D Canal Museum National Historic Landmark.

The 24/7 operation part is handled by a half dozen “Marine Traffic Controllers” commonly referred to as dispatchers, who orchestrate the day and night transiting of ships through the busy canal from their Chesapeake City facility. This is the nerve center offering panoramic views of the canal and its surroundings outside, as well as close up views inside of multi-function computer maps, closed circuit TV, and digital identification systems for all ships transiting the canal. But good old-fashioned human interaction via VHF radio communications between the Marine Traffic Controller on duty and transiting ships plays a critical role supported by the array of high tech gear. In other words, as the name “Marine Traffic Controller” implies, these folks in this room do for ocean going vessels what air traffic controllers in their towers do for aircraft: they keep things flowing smoothly, efficiently, and, above all, safely. Pamela Rust-Holland, a four year U.S. Air Force veteran, became the first woman Marine Traffic Controller with the C&D Canal operation a few years back. Like all dispatchers, she has the authority to shut down the canal for dangerous weather conditions, a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly. “But how do you communicate with ocean going vessels engaged in international trade from all these nations speaking so many languages?” I ask her. “Maryland, Delaware, or Federal Pilots who must accompany each ship through the canal,” is her short answer. These are highly experienced and skilled U.S. Coast Guard certified “guides” who know the C&D canal and its approaching waterways like the back of their hand.
One of several bridges to cross the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, this lift bridge can be raised or lowered to accommodate the transit need of the moment (for shipping or car traffic).
To the casual observer, the canal may seem to be a serene ribbon of water running east and west. But this can be a deceiving illusion. The dangerous mix of fog, ice, and varying tides, as well as changing current directions and speeds can quickly turn any combination of bad luck, carelessness, ignorance, or mechanical malfunction into disaster. The laws of physics remain immutable; the immense dimensions and tonnage of modern cargo ships generate enormous forces that strip thin the margin for error. As a result, while the canal enjoys an excellent safety record, its history has been colored by the occasional spectacular accident. Which is one reason why restrictions, such as “no more than 190 feet of total combined beam dimensions are allowed in the canal at any time,” are observed.

Big plans for big projects occupy the minds of both civilian and military personnel inside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It takes a lot of time and money to widen and/or deepen a waterway like the C&D Canal and yet such improvements are always under consideration, if for no other reason than cargo ships, barges, tankers, and auto haulers get larger over time. The $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal is scheduled to be completed in 2016 allowing ever larger so called Post Panamax ships to power through its locks. Baltimore, with its 50-foot channel depths is one of the few East Coast Ports now prepared for them. But, as it now stands, these mammoth ships will have no choice but to travel up the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The C&D Canal’s present dimensions are simply inadequate to the task, which raises the interesting question: Does the Parent of all U.S. Canals have a major expansion project in its future?